Since I’ve been here at Emory I’ve noticed the absence of a Hispanic cultural dance group and I’ve always wanted to start...
The history of salsa dance stretches back almost a century to the island of Cuba. Today it is a worldwide phenomenon thrilling both club dancers and professional competitors twisting with “Cuban motion” for millions of fans.
The music and dance styles of salsa developed simultaneously in the 1920s as various musical styles such as Mambo, African, and “Son Montuno” came together on the island of Cuba. The island was already a melting pot for various other types of Latin dance such as tango, mambo, and flamenco. Sensing a potential dance and music sensation, a local studio called Fania named the new sound “Salsa" and began spreading it through the island clubs and over the radio. It went north to Miami as well as South America, and renowned musicians such as Tito Puente and Dizzie Gillespie began to incorporate the rhythms into their sets. The dancers followed along, adding more complicated moves depending on their experience. Some salsa styles are fast, almost frenetic, with whirling partner moves, while others seem more relaxed and sensual with elements of Argentine tango or slow rhumba in them.
Regardless of style, there are a few elements that have always been a part of the basic salsa steps:
While the music of salsa is distinctive, the moves are often derivative of other partner dances such as the tango, the mambo, the rhumba, or even swing dance techniques.
As salsa dance became more popular beyond the shores of Cuba, the different styles became identified by the various geographic areas where they developed.
The “original” salsa developed in Cuba during the mid-20th century. Much of its originality can be attributed to the Cuban embargo, so that the motions have a stronger Afro-Cuban rhumba influence (as opposed to Puerto Rican or North American). This “casino” (named for the Spanish dance clubs where people gathered) is still considered an integral part of Latin-American heritage, and the style has spread to Europe, South America, and even as far as Israel. One identifying characteristic of this style is that the dance begins on the downbeat of one or three, as opposed to two (the original Son style).
Of all the South American countries that enjoyed moving to salsa, Columbia seemed to adopt it almost as their national pastime. Cali, Columbia is known as the “Capital de la Salsa.” While they enjoyed the music and steps, the Cali dancers added in their own native rhythms such as Cumbia. The style itself tends towards a relaxed and almost motionless upper body with intricate foot work. Unlike Cuban and North American styles, they do not do cross-body leads, and their “break” (on the one, usually, like Cuban style) is in a diagonal path, rather than a straight “slot.” The popularity of the dance in Columbia has led to events such as World Salsa Cali Festival.
Dancers in the states enjoy several different styles of salsa, but the top three are New York style (heavily influenced by jazz music and swing dance), Miami style (naturally more similar to the Cuban style due to geography) and the newest, LA Style salsa. All of these styles tend to be more flashy than the South American forms, with many twists, turns, and even acrobatic aerial moves similar to the Lindy Hop. Most of the salsa dances performed in professional ballroom and on TV shows such as Dancing With the Stars comes from the LA Style.
There are other styles as well, such as the Rueda de Casino (a melding of the salsa dance with folk dancing to form a circular salsa dance line with partner swapping. The Cuban solo form has also developed to allow individuals to dance the salsa without a partner, just enjoying their bodies moving to the rhythm.
With the explosion of dance videos through sites such as YouTube, more and more people are learning and enjoying salsa. They are also continuing to integrate their own styles into the form, such as hip hop and middle-eastern dance. While it is a relatively young movement form, salsa is a vibrant and growing part of the world’s dance culture.
Latin dance has a long and complicated history, but the elements that come back again and again are self-expression and rhythm. While some Latin dances are almost wholly descended from one cultural sphere, the vast majority of Latin dances have three distinct influences: the native influence, the upper-class European influence, and the African influence. Dating back at least to the 15th century, which is when indigenous dances were first documented by European explorers, the roots of Latin dance are both deep and geographically far-reaching.
Long before men and women were dancing the Rumba or the Salsa, indigenous peoples of South and Central America were developing what we have come to recognize today as Latin dances. On the path to becoming the dances spectators enjoy in competitions and ballrooms today, these earliest ritualistic dances would be influenced by many different European and African styles, both in movement and in music.
Around the turn of the 16th century, seagoing explorers like Amerigo Vespucci went back to Portugal and Spain with tales of native peoples (Aztec and Inca) performing intricate dances. Just how long these dance traditions had already been established is unknown, but when they were observed by European explorers the dances were already developed and ritualized, suggesting a significant base. These indigenous dances often centered around everyday concepts such as hunting, agriculture, or astronomy.
In the early 16th century European settlers and conquistadors like Hernando Cortes began to colonize regions of South America, and absorbed the local dance traditions into a new version of the local culture. Known as assimilation, the Catholic settlers merged the native culture with their own, keeping the movements but adding Catholic saints and stories to the dances. Aztec dances greatly impressed the settlers because they were highly structured and included large numbers of dancers working together in a precise manner.
Over the centuries, European folk dances and African tribal dances would mix with these indigenous roots to create modern Latin dancing.
Since European folk dances that traveled to the Americas with the settlers prohibited male and female dance partners from touching one another, the practice of having a dance partner was new. While the indigenous dances were group dances, many, but not all, of the European dances that were exported to the Americas were performed by a male and a female as a couple. These European dances combined a mixture of musical appreciation and social opportunity, which were both integrated into the developing Latin dance genre. Much of the storytelling element disappeared from the genre as the focus moved toward the rhythm and the steps.
In terms of movement, the European influence brought a certain daintiness to the indigenous dances of Latin America because the steps were smaller and the movements were less forceful. Combining this finesse with the irresistible beat of the African drums is one of the defining features of Latin dance.
Movement styles and especially musical rhythms of Africa left a lasting mark on dances of Latin America. With the European settlers came African slaves, whose dances and music survived better in South America than in North America. The following elements of Latin dance can be traced to African influences:
Different dances developed in separate countries, with some dances spreading over several regions and others being limited to one city.
Many popular dances of today that are associated with Latin America were largely developed in social spheres, in an organized fashion, and with professional musicians providing the beat. This is the case for the following dances:
While folk dances like the Mexican Hat Dance developed in more rural areas, Latin dances developed into full-fledged genres after 1850. These genres were modeled after the European waltz and polka. The music was the engine for each dance, guiding the dance steps with its measure, speed, and the feeling it evoked, from energetic to sensual.
Various Latin American regions had independent musical styles, and from each musical genre, or combination of styles, a dance genre was born. For example the Mambo, which originated in the 1940s, was born of a marriage between American swing music and Cuban son music, which dated from the same period.
Following the music, the movement history, and the rhythms of the soul, Latin dances developed over time and individual steps slowly fleshed out the repertoire of each dance. Many Latin dances still have a significant improvisational component to complement the steps, and the regional influences rooted in each genre date back significantly in time.
The different types of Latin dances offer a rich cultural history when you examine each dance individually and look at the various influences that contributed to it. Many Latin dances have several different forms by now, and what spectators see at ballroom competitions is only the tip of the iceberg. To discover even more styles and genres, check out cultural events such as the Brazilian Carnival in order to experience the many genres of Latin style dancing as well as the cultural and musical histories that are deeply embedded in the dances.
Agnes de Mille once said, “Ballet technique is arbitrary and very difficult. It never becomes easy—it becomes possible. The effort involved in making a dancer’s body is so long and relentless, in many instances painful, the effort to maintain the technique so grueling that unless a certain satisfaction is derived from the disciplining and the punishing, the pace could not be maintained.”
Notice the words difficult, effort, long, relentless, painful, grueling, discipline and punishing. The bottom line: Dance is hard. To dedicate your life to dance means developing certain personality traits that will enable you to maintain focus and stay committed to your dream.
A characteristic is: A feature or quality belonging typically to a person, place, or thing and serving to identify it. So what characteristics identify a dancer?
In the musical “A Chorus Line” the performers say, “All I ever needed was the music and the mirror.” It takes passion to see your dream and to continue coming back to it over and over again, when the rest of the world tells you “no, thank you.” It takes passion to dedicate hours to training and rehearsing. These are hours away from your family, friends and community. It takes passion to remember why you do this during times of exhaustion, fatigue and frustration. Perhaps above all, dancers are passionate about what they do.
The dance world is always requiring you to stand alone. Choreographers, companies and teachers want to see your individual work. In auditions, they want to see your individual style, personality and talent. It takes confidence to believe in yourself and your ability. This isn’t always easy, especially during times when auditions simply aren’t going your way. It takes confidence to remind yourself that you can keep going, and for every 500 rejections you get, there will be one “yes, you’ve got the job!” Confidence is what pushes you to the next level in training and performing, and it tells you that deep down, you know you can do it.
Dancers pay close attention to details. For example, where are you placing your weight? (In the heels or in the balls of your feet?) Are you closing to fifth position? (Completely?) Where is your head, your shoulders, your eye focus? These are all questions that cross dancers’ minds during class and while performing. A dancer’s brain never rests while dancing. You are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating. This is what makes you better. Being meticulous is what leads to better, stronger dancing. It also comes into play when remembering details about companies, people or characters for auditions. Being meticulous is what helps dancers strive for perfection.
Dancers are constantly being humbled by their bodies, their peers and their teachers. If nothing else, dancers are humbled by the difficulty of the art. Ted Shawn once said, “Dance is the only art in which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.” That means, each day requires dancers to assess their bodies, their minds and their emotional and mental status. Some days are good and some days are bad. Staying humble is important for dancers because it helps remind everyone that they can always do better. Not everyone has the opportunity or facility to do such things, and dancers should always remember it is an honor to be part of such a group.
This may seem like an odd characteristic to develop, but dance training and the dance life requires a slight stubbornness from those who wish to do it well. For example, sometimes you have to choose to believe in your dream even when others tell you not to. In class, you have to be stubborn about holding a pique arabesque high in the air, even when your body’s weight wants to give in to gravity’s pull. It takes a little stubbornness to return to auditions, even when you’ve been told “no” thousands of times. This stubbornness - when used for good - can foster within yourself what is called “grit.” Grit is defined as: A positive, non-cognitive trait, based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal. Christa Justus, a lifetime performer, once said, “If you want to dance seriously, do. You must think about it day and night, dream about it—desire it.” Use your stubbornness wisely, and it will help you to succeed .
Merce Cunningham, American dancer and choreographer, said, “The most essential thing in dance discipline is devotion, the steadfast and willing devotion to the labor that makes the classwork not a gymnastic hour and a half, or at the lowest level, a daily drudgery, but a devotion that allows the classroom discipline to become moments of dancing too.” Dance is always looking forward. Dance honors progress, growth and the hope for something better and more. Dancers attend classes each week in hopes that after each class they are a little better, a little stronger. Dancers believe each step is moving them closer to something grand. Just as ballet classes start small and move to large movements, so does the dancer’s mind. Dancers hold within them an optimism so strong that they are willing to sacrifice their time, energy and bodies to their craft.
Being in the dance world comes with a lot of fears. Questions such as, “What if I’m not good enough?” and “Why can’t I do that?” haunt dancers almost daily. There is the fear of not having money, fear of injuries, fear of not being liked. Fear is always waiting to consume the mind and body. Dancers learn to overcome this fear. They learn to use fear as fuel to be better, work harder and stay focused. Dancers allow fear to drive them forward as they go leaping into the unknown.
Nothing can come between a dancer and their focus. When a dancer sets a goal, their mind is made up. Dancers know what it is like to sacrifice for their art, and they do - without hesitation. They will rehearse during odd hours simply because that is the only free studio space available. They will work everything around a performance, a rehearsal or a class. Dancers know what it is to give their all, and they do it every day. They “walk the walk” and they do it with tireless dedication.
Dance can be isolating at times. You, alone, have to train your body. You will have help from your teachers, but only you can take feedback and put it back into your dancing. You, alone, have to audition. You, alone, have to figure out how to keep going during times when you feel weak or find yourself questioning your talent. Through trying experiences, dancers become fiercely independent. They run their schedules, their life, while handling bills, scheduling classes, traveling, and sometimes working multiple jobs. Dancers learn how to make everything work: dance, work, life, friends, family. And they do it on their own.
Conscientious (adjective): Wishing to do what is right, especially to do one’s work or duty well and thoroughly. Dancers wake up each morning with this initial desire. You hope for a good class, for a strong body, and for improvement. You hope to impress the teacher and to impress yourself. The desire to do well at dance is what runs through dancers’ veins and helps start the fire of all of the other qualities. It is what drives dancers to defy gravity, to work themselves to and past exhaustion, and then say, “I’ll try it again” without having to make the teacher ask.
These ten qualities are what make dancers who they are; a fascinating group of individuals ready, willing and prepared for anything. Dancers care deeply, and they are willing to alter their bodies, minds, attitudes and schedules all because they love to dance.
Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Many people have called dancers “crazy” for working so hard and for giving up so much of their time and energy to dance. But dancers do not see it that way. It is these ten characteristics that push them forward, that keep them hearing the music, when everyone else cannot.